Andrew Greig is a poet of the outdoors, of the ruggedly rural, of cliff-top and riverbed. That description, however, while not inaccurate, does an injustice to the broader character of his work. His writing, it is true to say, has been drawn to what others might characterise as traditionally masculine pursuits – mountaineering, golf, fishing, war – yet his work is not born of testosterone, but of feeling.
“A lot of my readers are women… I don’t feel I need to hide my emotionality. It’s like something I read recently said by of all people Ezra Pound: ‘What lasts is emotion.’ And I think it’s the truth; in that sense I suppose I’m quite feminine.”
Greig was born on 23 September 1951 in Stirling, delivered by his father who was a doctor. He grew up in Bannockburn and Anstruther. His first creative ambition was not to write but to be a singer-songwriter; Greig can play guitar banjo, and piano. He made short trips to London in the hope of landing a record deal, and even supported John Martyn (nephew of his gym teacher), but he was not destined to be a musician: “I was not quite talented enough, not quite pretty enough and not quite determined enough. You need two of those three [to make it as a musician].”
Greig’s admiration for Bob Dylan and his lyrics suggested an alternative path. At the same time as the young Greig was listening to Dylan and the Incredible String Band, he was reading Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan and Norman MacCaig, the latter having the profoundest effect on his verse. Greig met MacCaig while he was still a teenager, MacCaig gently yet firmly telling the boy to work on developing his own voice rather than pastiching his. MacCaig would remain a touchstone throughout his career. Greig’s At The Loch of Green Corrie, a mix of memoir and essay published in 2010, describes a fishing trip to Assynt inspired by MacCaig’s last words to him.
MacCaig’s continuing influence, and how Greig adapted it to suit his own voice, is observable in the poem Greig wrote remembering his mentor after his death, ‘Norman’s Goodnight’:
And may there be time
to murmur as I fold
some word of thanks
and letting go –
like the last time I saw MacCaig
standing at his door;
as I turned the stair
his hand came up, waved:
Masterly concision –
‘Thank you’ and
‘Goodnight’ in one.
I hope to be
even briefer as I fall:
The young Greig was also a fan of the Beat generation of authors:
The American Beats felt closer to me than the more staid poets that appeared between the covers of respectable books. I’ve always felt torn between those two things: the puckish, ludic out-there performance poetry, and more measured, clear, simple poetry…. That’s what my work seems to veer between – short, naturalistic pieces and long, multi-voiced, playful things.
After school, Greig spent time “drifting”: hop- and tobacco-picking, farm labour, bar-work, salmon-netting – and writing. He enrolled at the University of Edinburgh in 1971, where he studied philosophy. While a student, he won an Eric Gregory Award in 1972, and the following year he published his first collection, White Boats, co-written with Catherine Lucy Czerkawska.
After a short period as an advertising copy-writer, Greig settled into his career as a poet, surviving through grants, casual labour and signing on. His next volume of verse, Men on Ice (1977), signalled his interest in mountaineering, a subject he has returned to several times in his career. Men on Ice was a long narrative poem that used a mountain climb as a metaphor for a spiritual quest.
This is the truth of it:
bunched together on crumbling handholds
under a crazy overhang, the wind
screaming personal demons,
the snow outrageous, night setting in.
Worn down by a maze of dead endings,
baffling reversals, hopeful pitches
turned awry, the future terrifies,
it rears up beyond the verticals;
nor dare we look down
where the past glistens below
– a wicked diamond beauty –
Greig had at the time of writing never in fact climbed a mountain. That changed when he ran into the professional climber Mal Duff, who had read the book. “Because the poem felt true to the yearning, fear, intensity, squabbles, and exaltation of high-altitude climbing, he assumed I had climbed.” Greig was in fact afraid of heights. Nevertheless, he accepted Duff’s invite to join him on an expedition to climb in the Himalayas. The trip led to other climbs, out of which he wrote his first long work of prose, Summit Fever (1985), a work of non-fiction. In time, Greig would return to prose, beginning a parallel career as a novelist in 1992 with Electric Brae.
By now, Greig was describing his work as “a deliberate revolt against the gritty, angry urban realism that seemed to pervade Scottish writing” of that era. In 1986, Greig co-authored with Kathleen Jamie the long WW2-set poem A Flame in Your Heart; its ‘Battle of Britain’ narrative strand was less about spitfires and derring-do than a young flier’s tragic romance. In 1989, he returned in poetic form to the subject of mountaineering with The Order of the Day. 1994’s Western Swing (subtitled ‘Adventures with the heretical Buddha’) was described by the Sunday Herald as being “like The Waste Land if T.S Eliot had been as interested in vintage rock and rock climbing as he was various mythologies”:
These tapes I’ve spliced
This ain’t no party
This ain’t no disco
This is Western Swing
Play a song for me, Mr Shantyman, Shantih, man,
Western stars light up the sky –
Ane doolie sessoun to ane cairfull dyte –
And so sweet Jane, approximately –
These tapes I’ve spliced against the night.
‘Stella Writes from Hospital’
Edwin Morgan put it well when he wrote, Greig “deals with high-risk situations – from mountaineering to love – and is particularly good at preserving the gamut of feelings involved in rites of passage: high endeavour, commitment, holding back, drift, release”.
The onset of ME in 1987 ended Greig’s mountaineering expeditions. He recovered from the condition by 1997, by which time he had grown well known for novels such as Electric Brae and the Buchan-esque The Return of John McNab (1996) as well as for his verse. In 1999, Greig almost died from a blocked brain ventricle. “You don’t have to go out to mountains to write scary stuff. I’ve reached the age where friends drop dead. I’m very aware of it now.”
Greig recovered and continued to write. In 2000, he married the novelist Lesley Glaister, and the couple divide their time between the Orkneys and Edinburgh. His near-death experience was reflected in a new awareness of mortality in his verse as well as feeding into his SAC Scottish Book of the Year award-winning novel In Another Light (2004). He has also written a memoir of golf-playing, Preferred Lies (2006) and edited a selection of his own verse, This Life, This Life (2006). Greig’s writings on mountaineering were collected in 2011 in Getting Higher: The Complete Mountain Poems. His novel Fair Helen, based on the ballad ‘Fair Helen of Kirkconnel’, was published in 2013. “When I was younger I was drawn to the Romantic poets, the ones who died early and the ones who should have, like Wordsworth. But as I’ve got older and become too old to die tragically young I’ve become interested in poets who can keep doing it, like Yeats and George Bruce.”